A golden era near in men's clothing? Fashion: Forget daddy's clothes and stern suits with corporate pretentions. Designers are providing looks with an edge and body-consciousness once available only to women.

February 15, 1996|By Amy M. Spindler | Amy M. Spindler,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Men's fashion is on the kind of creative roll that used to be the norm for women's clothing design.

While women's fashion has been incapable in the last two years of getting the momentum for anything resembling a movement, men's fashion is in the creative throes of one.

Women's fashion most recently suggested that women of all ages dress like moms, yet men's fashion is throwing off daddy's clothes, stern suits with corporate pretentions and even soft, asexual Italian ones.

The roots, instead, are in rock-rebellion dressing, a look nearing 50 and therefore considered almost establishment: a silhouette that is both sexy and forgiving, deep moody colors and a lean lithe shape.

Certainly the Council of Fashion Designers of America's award winners suggest men's fashion is entering a golden era. Tom Ford, for Gucci, and Richard Tyler, both winners, are in the forefront of that new era, along with Helmut Lang and Costume Homme, bringing men's fashion the edge and body-consciousness once available only to women.

What was most surprising at the American men's wear shows that ended last Thursday was to find the greatest traditionalist of them all, Ralph Lauren (who won a CFDA award for women's fashion), in that same camp, with sexy, sharp clothes that have more to do with clean Le Courbusier architecture than with English tweeds. And to find Calvin Klein committing his most expensive new line, Black on Black, to the tapered silhouette.

"There's a whole group all on the same wavelength, which is really reassuring," said Mr. Tyler after his triumphant show, full of masterly tailoring, masculine references and innovative design.

The promises of feel-good fashion that have always been made to women are now there for men (when women seem to be rejecting the notion): look younger, fitter, sexier, sharper. The structure of the suits makes middle-aged bodies look toned, even when they aren't, something slumpy suits can't do.

Inspired by how far men have to go, and by how much room there is in their closets, designers are spending considerable creative energy on the male customer. Young designers like BTC John Bartlett, Austyn Zung, Gene Meyer and Richard Edwards (by Richard Bengtsson and Edward Pavlick) are focused only on men's fashion, and all showed inspired creative efforts.

Shows full of ideas

And clearly, Mr. Tyler, Mr. Lauren, and Mr. Klein have put tremendous thought and energy into collections as fluid and full of ideas as their best women's shows.

Mr. Tyler was inspired equally by Johnny Cash and the Warren Beatty of "Shampoo," with the swagger on his runway coming from jackets fitted with three seams up the back and trousers tapered into a slight flare over clean roper-style cowboy boots.

Longer jackets had flapping vents in the back, and stiff Wrangler-style denim was cut as carefully as if it were cashmere. Even button-down collars were given a sexy edge, open and peeking out of the top of jackets or worn with tone-on-tone ties. And leather and pony-skin jackets were sexy and luxurious, in deep Burgundy or gunmetal.

The dark and dangerous mood that drove this show turned brooding at Ralph Lauren, where the new silhouette is so pared down that buttons are either hidden or spare, as in an innovative double-breasted jacket with one button at the hip. The feel, like the color, is black.

Even Mr. Lauren's high-end purple label had a less corporate, more Heathcliff-worthy look, with a new hacking-jacket suit with cuffs at the sleeve, strong shoulders and lean lines. The muse may be Gary Cooper, but the look is elegance with an architectural cleanness, a sort of fashion "Fountainhead."

Mr. Bartlett's daring show was a paean to After Dark, the barely closeted 1970s magazine full of hulking, lamb-chop-sideburn men.

On a fake-fur-covered runway with a triptych of a pinup as a backdrop, the designer offered a ribald tribute to the only look of the era that hasn't yet been mined: beefy men bursting from leisure suits, tight trousers flared and buttoned at the bottom, furs, cropped bolero shirts and sculptured knits. Without the runway exaggeration, the cut is similar to Mr. Tyler's, and like any great designer, Mr. Bartlett managed to make the look of the moment a personal statement.

The big commercial powerhouses this season worked hard to prove their fashion mettle. Nautica by David Chu offered a persuasive mix of tailored clothes with techno ones, the look driving a new era of sports-meets-suits. And Wolfgang Joop abandoned the silly styling tricks of the past to show off a very credible collection of easy-to-understand tailored clothing, great leather jackets, even shimmery disco suits.

Since Tommy Hilfiger paid a fun tribute on his runway to rock dressing through the ages, a line from Bob Seger's "Night Moves" comes to mind: "I used her, she used me but neither one cared. We were getting our share."

It seems obvious what Mr. Hilfiger is getting from the association of a superstar like Coolio walking his runway: more credibility with the black urban customer who has made him a star (and who holds more cards to his future than Mr. Hilfiger may like.).

If affections for Carhardt and Nike can be an indication, it is the utilitarian brand appeal of Mr. Hilfiger's label, not its designer status, that has drawn rappers. The question is, as he emerges from behind the brand with all the magazine profiles money can buy: Will the street customer who has made his label cool stay loyal?

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